Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Teaching Plan - "Sithi Haleluya"

Break into Song, Episode 3

Liturgical Use: Gathering Song, Processional, Sung Benediction, Offertory, Easter Season

"Sithi Haleluya" is an Ndebele chorus from Zimbabwe. They say you don't really know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes, but I think relationships begin when we sing one another's songs. "Sithi Haleluya" expresses the solidarity of a community on this journey, sharing life's struggles and pains while rejoicing in expectation of the life to come. This song, along with others such as "Senzeni na?," "Freedom is Coming," and "We are marching in the light of God," took on new meaning during the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

These teaching tips will help you to introduce this song to your choir and congregation. You can also watch Episode 3 of Break into Song to get a sense of the background, rehearsal tips, and possible worship uses for this song. The following comments are based on the arrangement of "Sithi Haleluya" published in Chaia Marimba Music Book 3, by Maria Minnaar-Bailey, available from West Music. Minnaar-Bailey's excellent -- and infectiously joyful -- resource of Christian songs from Zimbabwe and South Africa features bilingual settings of four-part choruses and an accompanying CD of Zimbabwean marimba accompaniments. Her explanatory comments are a window into cross-cultural worship in a contemporary context (learn more about her teaching at

In Minaar-Bailey's arrangement, the song is in two of the three main languages of Zimbabwe: Shona and Ndebele (nn-deh-BEH-leh). We added an English translation for Break into Song which you are also welcome to use (see bottom of this post).

Another version of the song appears in the Wild Goose Publications' 1985 resource Freedom is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa, compiled and edited by Anders Nyberg.

It’s important to teach this song in a way that people aren’t tied down to the printed score, so that they’re freed up to move and dance. There are three main things you need to get across: how to feel the song’s rhythm, how to understand and pronounce the Ndebele words, and how to participate in the call-and-response structure.

Teaching the Choir

Choir Practice 1 of 3

      Feel the Rhythm

  • You may find a good way to start is to give a bit of context for the song, and for singing songs from diverse global contexts more generally. Why should we sing songs from different places and in unfamiliar languages? There are many reasons, and some will resonate with your community more than others. I like to say that singing in worship is sacrificial and is therefore an act of loving service; that is, (to borrow from my friend John Thornburg), sometimes in worship we are singing not for ourselves but for the person sitting in the pew next to us. To take that idea a step further (and to borrow from global ecumenical liturgist Andrew Donaldson), sometimes, we are singing for the person not yet sitting next to us in the pews.
  • Rhythm is very important to this piece. I like to begin teaching it with a simple rhythmic exercise that gets the beat into the singers' bodies. Build up three distinct rhythms adding one on top of another:
    • Basses: Quarter-note pulse (stepping or tapping feet)
    • Tenors and Altos: Quarter-eighth rhythm (slapping/tapping legs; corresponds to "Walking on we go")
    • Sopranos: Dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm (clapping; corresponds to "Haleluya" rhythm)
    • The distinction between these last two rhythms is particularly important as they play off one another quite a bit in this piece.
    • Let the rhythmic ostinato go around and around for a while until everyone has captured the beat.
       Learn the "Haleluyas"
  • When I teach this song, I like to teach the second half of the song first. The Haleluya section starting at m.9 (what I tend to refer to as the "Refrain" or the "B-section" of the song) is a little simpler than the first part and easily picked up, so it can be a satisfying learning curve to nail that first, then be able to move from the more difficult first section into something you already know as the song gets going.
  • Speak the rhythm of the haleluyas all together, then add pitches. This song can be taught entirely a cappella, and is a great one to use as an exercise in tuning if you are trying to strengthen your choir's unaccompanied singing. You may wish to isolate the parts - SA and TB are natural pairings in this song, as well as hearing the outer voices (SB) against one another, then filling in the inner voices once the foundation is solid.
      Prepare the Foundation - Bass/Tenor Ostinato
  • Once you've learned the second half of the song, work on Part A. Have the Basses speak their rhythmic ostinato several times ("Walking on we go, walking on we go...")  I like to learn the song in English first, which allows the group to get a sense of the song more quickly, and then try the Ndebele.
  • Have the Tenors speak their rhythmic ostinato, which differs slightly from the Basses. They may find it a bit tricky to draw out the word "go" the second time; have them try it on their own and speaking it against the Bass part until it's solid.
  • When the spoken rhythms are secure, learn the notes. Listen for tuning as the Basses climb up by perfect fifths - this can be a bit tricky.

      Explore the Treble Parts

  • Again, start with the English text spoken in rhythm for the Sopranos and Altos. Make sure that the rhythms for "world of woe" and "calls us on" are the dotted-eighth sixteenth figure and don't warp into a quarter-plus-eighth.
  • Sing the parts, perhaps starting at a slower tempo. When the notes and text are solid, speed it up a bit -- though this isn't an overly fast song so don't feel the need to rush it.
      Put it all together
  • Give it a try, and don't worry if it's not perfect. As the music leader, try cantoring a pickup line over the ends of phrases to indicate that a new repetition of the song is starting; when all the languages have been learned, you can do this to indicate what language to switch to in the moment.

Choir Practice 2 of 3

  • At a second practice of the song, sing through what the choir has learned so far and see what you remember. Encourage the choir to move as they sing - it's a pretty lively and infectious song and lends itself well to movement.
      Introduce the Ndebele
  • I like to start by reading through the entire text out of rhythm, then taking some time to go over the meaning of individual words. The meaning of the Ndebele (nn-deh-BEH-leh) text is reflected in the translation used in Break into Song:
    • singaba = we
    • hamba = walk
    • thina = another word meaning "we" (emphasis on the community; here we are, we ourselves)
    • kulumhlaba = "place of troubles" (ku = place)
    • siye/siya = we are going
    • kaya = home (siyekhaya = we are going home)
    • ezulwini = heaven (i.e., "we are going home to heaven")
    • sithi = we say, or, we sing (not a big distinction in Ndebele, unlike in English)
    • woh = vocable, nonsense syllable; "yeah"
  • There is one main pronunciation different of Ndebele with a sound we don't have in English. The word "kulumhlaba" features an "hl" sound which is made by forming a "d" or an "l" with the mouth, but then using that shape to blow the air out the sides. It sounds a bit like hissing or lisping. It sounds a little bit like when Sylvester the Cat says "Sssufferin' sssuccotash!" Have the choir try just this sound on its own, then within the whole word "kulumhlaba," then in rhythm with the rest of the text.
  • Teach the text by speaking it in rhythm in small chunks (a couple of words at a time) and have the choir answer back. 
  • Remind your choir that it's okay if their Ndebele isn't totally perfect! The kind of humility that comes from exploring a new language, to making ourselves vulnerable and even laughing at ourselves, is part of what is powerful about exploring congregational song from a variety of contexts.
  • Once the words are coming together, put the Ndebele to the music.
  • Put it all together and see how you do. As cantor, try singing a tag line over the end of the Haleluyas to indicate whether the upcoming repetition will be in Ndebele or English.

Choir Practice 3 of 3

  • At a third practice of the song (or at the end of the second if your choir seems ready for it), learn the dance. Dancing and moving is as integral to African choruses as singing (and of course, drumming). 
  • The simple dance consists of a few basic moves:
    • Together we walk along... - "Walking" along to the quarter note beat (walking in place)
    • For heaven calls... - Gesture arms from one side to another
    • Home we go - Point upward (to heaven)
    • Haleluya... - basically a "jazz hands" move back and forth
    • Note that the text essentially illustrates the words, so the men will just walk for Part A and gesture the "Haleluyas" for Part B. You can stop walking during the Haleluyas and just do your (liturgical) jazz hands.

If you'd like some help learning the dance, Maria Minnaar-Bailey teaches it midway through Episode 3 of Break into Song.

Teaching the Congregation

We've all been in worship services like this: a leader gets up on front of the group and says "alright everybody, we're going to do something new, you're probably not going to like it..."

The impulse to forewarn a congregation that we are about to do something unexpected and unfamiliar is an understandable one, but it does a great disservice to a new song to preface it with the idea that it might not go over well. It plants the seed of doubt before anyone has even experienced the music. I like to keep the attitude that any song chosen for worship is worth doing well, and in a manner respectful to its original context (whether that's a William Byrd motet, a lilting anthem by Fauré, or a syncopated African chorus in three languages). 

You can teach the melody of this song to your congregation in a simplified version of how you taught it to the choir:
  • Give a bit of context for the song;
  • Learn the Haleluyas first in a call-and-response manner;
  • Speak the text in rhythm;
  • Add the notes;
  • Learn the dance, and go for it.
You may wish to learn just the English and dance one week, then the Ndebele another time; or one "element" at a time over several services (English, Ndebele, dancing). See what you think will be the most supportive way to learn for your group. 

Sithi Haleluya (English translation):
(By Hilary Donaldson, Andrew Donaldson, and Maria Minnaar-Bailey)

   Together we walk along in this world of woe,
   For heaven calls us on,
   And home we go.
   Haleluya, haleluya, 
   haleluya, haleluya, haleluya!

     Bass ostinato: Walking on we go...
     Tenor ostinato: Walking on we go, walking on we go, on to our heav'nly home we go!

Have fun, and let me know how it goes! You'll be amazed at what can happen once you break into song.

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